Bracketing Problem

9 January 2023

Bracketing is a word that can take multiple meanings, depending on the context. In sports, for example, bracketing refers to the tournament table with an even number of participants, paired against one another until only one remains.

Bracketing Problem

In the world of affiliate marketing however, bracketing can be a nightmare for e-commerce brands and media buyers who work with this vertical. About 63% of the shoppers have reported bracketing this year, a practice of purchasing the same item in multiple colors or sizes with the intent of keeping only one and shipping back the rest.

Bracketing consequences

For the consumer, bracketing holds no drawbacks at all. But while shipping the items back might be free of charge for the consumer, it is not free for the seller that has to suffer additional logistical costs. Furthermore, all the investments into packaging and personal approach will go in vain. Finally, reserving any item takes it away from the shelves of an online shop, making it unavailable for someone truly interested in purchasing it.

According to Narvar research, 25% of the buyers are fine with paying fees for returning the goods, and 15% are so accustomed to bracketing that this is THE way they shop online. This way, National Retail Federation reports having recorded $761 billion in retail returns.

Bracketing vs. game theory

To get a grasp on how to combat the practice of “buy-and-try”, we have to understand the causes first, by applying the Game Theory. Assume you are buying a pair of shoes from an online store. There are many other people doing the same, but for the sake of simplicity, they all will be represented by another customer. Therefore, there are only you and another customer, each deciding whether to:

Stay Humble Go Bracketing

1. Eco-friendliness 1. Free of charge
2. Care for other customers 2. More information
3. Care for the seller 3. Wider selection
  4. Greater confidence

1. Risk of wrong buying 1. Selfishness
2. Replacing is time-consuming 2. Indirect harm to nature
3. Limited information 3. Harm to sellers
4. Limited selection 4. Harm to other customers


People are characterized by pragmatism and not altruism. Going bracketing allows one to gain more information about size, color, and materials; make a direct comparison; and account for matches and mismatches with the rest of the apparel for free. On the other side of the equation are additional costs, incurred by the seller to bring the less desirable goods back to the storehouse; cost of missed opportunity, borne by another customer; and damage to the nature caused by truck exhausts. To put it bluntly, all these drawbacks may not even be noticed by the customer, making them highly irrelevant.

It is reasonable to assume that your rival will go bracketing, because it brings a lot of advantages for free. While doing so, you are either losing yourself the options to choose from or forced to wait until the already opened goods will return to the shelves. Therefore, it is in your best interest to outrun the competitor and order the shoes in bulk with the intent to return most of them, before the rival does the same. We have achieved the Nash equilibrium so far – the superior option in the game for both players. We have to shift it if we want the things to change.

Bracketing is caused by multiple reasons, which we are going to address one by one:

  • Flexible return policy
  • Vague product description (EU vs. US size scale)
  • Vague color naming (Olympic, Viridian, Bittersweet)
  • Unclear product photos
  • Inconsistent product information

Countering bracketing

Flexible return policy might be good when you can afford it, but just because many do, does not imply you are to follow the pattern. Once the customer is charged with backshipping, it makes bracketing less appealing, because it is no longer a free ride. Yes, you may fall behind the competition because of that, but you can save immensely on the logistical costs.

Vague descriptions, color naming, and photos can be viewed as a whole because they are the same in nature. In order to be on the safe side, people purchase several items and make a direct comparison. Once your description gets simple and clear, it should contribute towards lowering the frequency of bracketing.

Customer review is a great way of increasing trust between you and your customers. Ask one of the buyers to provide one, by providing some freebies like points of loyalty, discount, or something of that kind. Also, make use of bracketing, by optimizing your post-back flow. Instead of simply letting it go, ask the specific reason why the return was made (wrong item, mismatch, wrong description, etc.).

Provide real-time assistance, so the client does not have to buy in bulk in the first place. And of course, make use of the new technologies. Since Google Maps can be travelled while sitting at home, why not implement the same system for your shop? Virtual AI-assisted try-on is a next-gen idea that can make all the difference.

In a nutshell, either make bracketing less appealing and more punishing as a practice or introduce something different that would make staying humble more beneficial. People have bounded rationality, meaning they will act the way that serves their needs and understanding best. 

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